Neighborhood Watch (series) 9


Grady had always known me, even though she hadn’t known all the things I’d done. She knew my heart better than I did, as cliche at that sounds. It was Grady that taught me that we aren’t the sum of our actions, or even the sum of our intentions. “We are greater than what we wish we are, and less than what we think we are.” When she said it, I must have made a face. She walked up to me so fast and deliberate, I braced for the inevitable slap to the face I anticipated. Instead, she grabbed me so intensely and kissed me with a passion I’d never felt from her before. “We’ll never fully understand or define God’s love in this lifetime, honey. Don’t knock it. Miracles can’t be explained. He gave me you. He forgives and heals all things. He pumps your heart and breaths life into you every second. Put that in your brain and mull it over until you go crazy. Then give in and let go, my darling.”

I had accepted that Grady was a ferocious Christian about five minutes into our first meeting. It surprised and confused me that such a gorgeous package of anomalies, walking around on two sexy legs and taking an interest in a friendship with me, could exist in the world … could survive in Fingerbone. I would come to understand that she defined the place. Opinionated, self-reliant, bad-asses lived in Fingerbone. Sure, there were a handful of socialite-wannabes, crotchety old coots, rednecks, and a few even fit the description “dregs of society.” But for the most part, townsfolk had two things you could always count on: curiosity and friendliness. Pretty harmless features, attractive even, if you have nothing to hide.

It wasn’t until Grady leaned into me one day at the river, whispered the punchline to a joke she was telling me, and then caressed the laugh-lines she’d created with her hands that I realized. I didn’t have to hide from her. She was one of only two in town that had managed to make me laugh since I’d been there. I enjoyed her company, her smell, her mannerisms, her eyes. But I believed her interest in me strictly sisterly, and had self-talked myself batty not to screw up this great friendship by scaring her. I tried to tame my attraction to her and made no inappropriate advances. So when her adoring fingers silenced my giggle, and her lips traveled to my fading smile, my confusion and cautiousness departed, and I fell.

I fell first in love, and then literally into the river. If you know my past, neither makes any sense. I’m not usually at a loss for grace and balance. It was a huge part of my profession at one point. As for love, you have to understand. What I used to do … it would have been like a librarian who couldn’t read, or a mechanic allergic to grease. But Grady and I, we were clumsy like two new colts loping about on spindly legs. She opened the door to all we could have, and we suddenly figured out we had brought a teacup to a well the size of the ocean. That splash helped connect us for eternity though. Eternity minus a bullet.

Later in her living room, as we were warming up next to her wood burning stove, I asked her what she was thinking when she kissed me. I expected her to say, “I wasn’t,” or something that meant there was still some pondering happening. Instead, she’d reminded me of our first conversation.

“I was thinking about what you said when we first met. ‘People aren’t always what they seem, Ma’am.’ Poetic and ironic. I was looking at the scars on your neck after you asked me about Fred Tanner. When you said that, I looked into your eyes and those words stirred my heart more about you than Fred. I wanted to know what made you tick.”

“I thought you just wanted to preach to me.” This made her laugh and give me a little shove.

“I wanted you to know what make me tick.”

You know the rest. The warmth, the light flickering in her eyes, the words and how they purred softly into my emotional wounds … we didn’t make love that night. We held each other, snuggled while fully clothed, and felt the power we had to heal and protect one another, even in our sleep.


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Wentville Wind Chimes

Stacheldraht 05.jpgThe sound an old rusted chain makes when the cheap plastic seat, baked by the sun, has succumbed to one too many cracks and fallen off … and the chain hits the swing-set pole when the wind catches it. The sound of farm land metal (resurrected from a dirt grave where the orange-brown pipe has corroded for years) when it takes a dive into a burn barrel of the same color. That’s the sound wind chimes in Wentville make. They fit right into the landscape of yard trampolines and trailers, old tires and dead grass cradling yard trash.

Photo: “Stacheldraht 05” by WaugsbergOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Neighborhood Watch (series) 8


Jack had Hen read the notes she’d taken over the phone with the county coroner from the preliminary findings.  Sharing this information before the formal report was done was not common practice unless you were a detective in the police office down the street from her office.  The only reason she’d been inclined to share things that might be pertinent to the early investigation with a team an hour away in a town some 2000 feet above her was because Hen was her ex-sister-in law and whom she liked better than her own brother.  The lab tech down there either wasn’t as kind or the tests would actually take several more hours before we would know what killed the dog.  Hen had confirmed her suspicion about an injection with the coroner after describing what she’d found.

We stood with our hands in our pockets (lame attempts at keeping them warm), studying the empty timeline, the photographs taken with a camera borrowed from the department in Southtown, and a cast someone had made of a foot print in the ground around the dog. Nobody spoke while our minds raced.  This quiet pandemonium  ensued for nearly 20 minutes.  It was Jack’s rule – a trick picked up in his younger days as an MPI (Military Police Investigator) in the Army.  Just seconds before we were all about to bust open in thought streams, he silently uncapped a marker and wrote three letters on the right side of the board where he’d asked Tom to leave some space.  The BOLO on the truck hadn’t returned anything yet.

“Motive.  Means.  Victims.  Let’s take turns on these three areas based on what we’ve just worked out or questioned in our heads.  Give me what you know, or ask a question for each of us to pontificate on and see what we can string together.”

Tom, a Deputy who had been with Jack the longest, was new to investigation.  He was the patrol guy that handed out warnings or tickets if you pissed him off.  He was the guy that mostly sat in the office when he was on shift and did the minimum drive time required.  He wasn’t lazy, just bored.  Jack asked him to stay on shift when we had all convened because he wanted a different, untrained perspective.  I could tell there was more to Jack’s plan in this regard than the others understood.  Tom was getting an experience he’d not had his entire time on the team.  If this sparked more motivation in him, more energy, he would stay on that much longer and Jack wouldn’t have to hire yet another replacement for a hard-to-fill position.  He’d gone through eight people since I’d moved here two years ago.  That had to be tough.  Tom had been solid throughout, but it was clear he was winding down and looking elsewhere.  There’s nothing worse than donating forty hours of your life every week to a monotonous, thankless job.

“What do you want for ‘means’ up there, Jack?” Tom asked.

“What does the evidence tell you about the ‘means’ used in each aspect of the crime?  Things like, ‘did they use a lock pick?’ or ‘what kind of weapons did they use?’  Anything that will point us to the unsub’s skill set, knowledge, strengths or weaknesses.  What they use and how they do things helps ID what kind of person they are inside and out.  Get it?”

Tom nodded an affirmative and glanced, self-consciously at us.  He shifted his gaze to the filtered headlight gliding over the window drape and appeared almost starry-eyed when he said, “It don’t seem right, what he did to that dog.”

We all acknowledged the observation in our self-imposed silence now.  He’d spoken what had eaten at me since I had heard Hen’s report.  “I think that speaks more truth about this guy than what was inside the house.  He killed the people inside without shedding any blood and without any weird ritualistic or fetish crap you might see in a serial killer.  He killed nearly an entire household, something I would usually align with rage or a crime of passion, but I don’t see much rage in the way he did it.  But the dog …”  I trailed off, a lump forming in my throat.  I really needed a antacid.

“Overkill.”  Hen was always one for few words with deep meaning.

“Like he hates dogs or at least this one.  I seen dogs killed with poison, but never like this.”  Our acceptance of Tom’s opening statement had dropped his guard and I could see he was feeling more comfortable.

“You guys keep saying ‘he.’  Are we sure the unsub is male?”  Jack played his role as facilitator as he wrote “poison” in the “Means” section, and “family” next to “V.”

“I think there’s a 90% chance our subject is male,” I said, “because I think he knew her.”

“True.  Not much struggle from her in the event she was awake.  The sheet … and rolling her over.  Seems like he didn’t want to look at her or the shape of her face.”  Hen pointed to the sheet covered woman and momentarily stepped closer, as if she was looking for something to grab at inside the picture’s realm.  “He stuck around in that room for awhile or else returned after he’d finished with the others.  Why else would he roll her over like that?”

I was careful how I phrased a response to this.  “Suffocation isn’t like strangulation.  A pillow held over the face takes a long time to deprive the brain of oxygen and make her pass out.  It also leaves her arms and legs free to kick and fight.  There would have been noise from a struggle like that.  If she fought, it was too little too late.  But there’s no bruising or scraping on her arms or hands and you said her nails were clean.  So how does he enter the room, reach over her and grab the pillow next to her head, place it over her face and hold it there for two to five minutes without a struggle?”

I left this question hang before answering it.  “She was out cold.  Either passed out from drugs or alcohol maybe, or something else.  But there’s no other way the body lets its life-giving oxygen be withheld, even if the mind is willing, without instinctively fighting.  He knew it too.  That’s why he turned her over.  If she’d been awake, or even cognizant of what was happening, he would have been able to tell if the job was finished.  But he couldn’t feel if the body had given up.  So he turned her face into the pillow at some point.  That way, if she did move to get air, he’d know.  If she  didn’t, he’d know it was over.”

Jack had frantically scribbled notes on his “MMV” outline as we’d talked.  Tom had grabbed a chair and was slouched, scratching his face stubble and watching Jack write.  Meanwhile, I realized I may have said too much.  Hen was staring at me with a furrowed brow, her hands on her hips, and her eyes asking me who the hell I was.

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Neighborhood Watch (series) 7


The first thing you notice as you enter the front door, is the empty threadbare love seat in the living room, facing a blaring television.  A wood stove to the right sits strategically in the far back corner, taking up a third of the living room area, and backed by a grey brick alcove that probably reflected the heat when burning.

Crime Scene

Crime Scene (Photo credit: Alan Cleaver)

The place has an “open” floor plan, and to the right, closest to the door, you can see over the small dining table, and then over the countertop, to the kitchen.  Every digital clock in there – the microwave, the coffeemaker, the stovetop/oven display – they’re all blinking different times.  On the wall between the kitchen pantry and the heater,  a door leads out to the makeshift carport someone constructed.  Tarp covered plywood is fastened to the side of the trailer on one end, and propped up by several four-by-fours on the other.  The place smells faintly of cat pee, but mostly of cigarettes.  The wallpaper bears witness to the latter.

The hallway on the left extends for the entire left side of the trailer and has doors to two bedrooms on the left and the master bedroom at the end of the hall on the right.  A bathroom adjoins the master bedroom and opens into the hall next to a large coat closet which takes up the rest of the hallway on the right.

The intruder entered from the carport.  There was no forced entry and the front door remained locked.  Oil stains on the gravel there and tire indentions meant that it was common for the family to keep a car parked there (and apparently to keep the side door unlocked).  This probably gave cover for a stealthy entry requiring very little concern for onlookers.

In all, there were three murders if you didn’t account for the family dog.  Hen found him when she went to look into a group of the neighborhood cats at the rear of the place.  They were surrounding the poor thing as it lay there, howling like she’d never heard before.  Having investigated her fair share of complaints about pets suspiciously dying since she retired and moved to Fingerbone, Hen knew the cause of death before waiting for lab tests.

The enormous German Shepherd had been poisoned.  Not uncommon for folks to cruelly take matters in their own hands when local pets trounced their gardens, or bullied their Shih tzus, Chihuahuas, Pomeranians, or other poor excuses for dogs.  Unlike other incidents she’d encountered, this poison hadn’t been introduced slowly.  It had most likely been injected  since no animal would ingest the volume of a fatal chemical that would result in the effects she’d seen.  His eyes were completely blackened and no longer had the gloss that healthy eyes possess.  It was as if the sheen that normal eyes exhibit was dulled with sandpaper.  His body lay flat but was not positioned as if he had grown weak and lowered himself.  It was more like he had suddenly grown stiff and had been pushed over, as if he’d died standing up first.  His tongue was grey and stiffly hung over his teeth, crusted foam framing it all around.  If the weather had been warmer, no doubt flies would have been swarming around the feces the poor animal had suddenly released as death very suddenly strangled his efforts to protect his home.

The coroner had determined the the mother had died first.  She was found face down in her bed, fully clothed in her pajamas, and covered with a sheet.  The report was only preliminary, but there were remnants of down feathers in her mouth and nose.  She’d been smothered in her sleep with an old pillow and apparently the killer rolled her over and pulled the bed sheet up over her head.

Next was the teenager.  He had been tied to a chair and ligature marks on his neck indicated he’d been strangled with a thin cord or line of some sort.  His headphones were still on his head pounding out some Eminem playlist on his iPod when Hen and the team discovered him.  His bed was still loosely made, with a  porn magazine laying open.  The team to surmised he’d been awake, and didn’t hear the killer move past his room and down the hall when headed toward the mother’s room.  The area where the younger brother slept appeared untouched except for an open drawer in the chest by his bed.

The old man that slept in the last room on the left died shortly after.  Much the same way as the woman, he’d been strangled with  a pillow taken from the boys’ room.  It was unclear whether he’d died of asphyxiation or a heart attack.  His mouth and eyes were still closed, as if he had never awoke.  Unlike his daughter, he was not covered.  Even in death, his serene face would fit the soft mumble of a rhythmic snore.

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